Some people salivate at the phrase “luxury travel.” But what is luxury? Ramping prices to exclude the proletariat doesn’t indicate desirability to me. Even with a lottery win, I wouldn’t want to ski at Gstaad, play roulette at Monte Carlo, or blow $400 in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
I get my share of travel writer freebies, but I’m happy to be a prole. Quite frankly, I’d rather overnight in a viper pit than some ludicrously-priced boutique hotels. Especially the ones designed for needy, pretentious types preoccupied by status. Do sane people dream of indulging their ‘inner child’ with nursery rhyme clocks? Or believe the bedsheet thread count is important?
For me, luxury is exploring extraordinary places…fabled cities…islands that belong on ‘here be dragons’ maps. So, for 2008, here are four favorite destinations, plus another five I yearn to visit. Their affordability may surprise you. The tenth choice? Although destined to be among this year’s media darlings, it’s one of my old haunts. Prepare for serious culture shock.
Classic Spain: Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez de la Frontera has all Andalucia’s fiery passions, but it’s far cheaper than Seville. Its 12th-century fortress whispers Moorish intrigue; you’ll find sherry bodegas, ‘dancing’ horses, and faded mansions with patio courtyards. A couple of neighborhoods pulsate to the gypsy guitar. Here peñas — genuine local flamenco clubs — have free entry. Hotel Serit is good value: doubles from $75. http://www.hotelserit.com
Greek Drama: Lesbos
Wild mountains, hot springs, pink flamingoes…ouzo distilleries and fishing boats trawling the sapphire Aegean Sea… Mytilini, the charismatic island capital. Lesbos is what all Greek island vacations were about before mass tourism. At seaside Pyrgi Thermi, Votsala Hotel lays on nature walks, cookery classes, and much more. A three-hour evening archaeology walk costs $8.50. Including breakfast, garden-view doubles go for $62 in May, $109 in August. http://www.votsalahotel.com
Silvery Splendor: Zacatecas, Mexico
Zacatecas is a gorgeous piece of 17th-century colonial Mexico. Founded on silver hewn from the Eden Mine, this stepped-street city was once a prized jewel in Spain’s crown. The conquistadors created a baroque masterpiece of fountains, bell towers, and gorgeous mansions that wouldn’t be out of place in Andalucia. Near the Cathedral, museums and markets, 19th-century Posada Tolosa has doubles for $60. http://www.hotelposadatolosa.com
Gothic Fantasy: Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania offers more than Dracula nonsense. Brasov is a picture-book of stout towers, cellar taverns, and medieval merchants’ houses. It makes a good base in this land of bear-trampled forests and quaint villages whose farmers use horse-drawn carts. If you must pay homage, Bran Castle is touted as Dracula’s Castle and only a 40-minute drive away. Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, is a far better day-trip. I rented a Brasov apartment for $58 nightly through http://www.best-accommodation.ro
1001 Nights: Syria
Syria may raise eyebrows. But being history mad, I want to explore Damascus, reputedly the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city…and take the old Silk Road to see Palmyra’s vast Roman ruins of pink sandstone, the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, and delve into Aleppo’s treasure-filled souks. Straight from an Arabian fairytale, Beit Wakil is a 400-year-old Aleppo merchant’s house transformed into a hotel. Doubles are around $90. http://www.beitwakil.com
Spicy Idyll: Zanzibar
Basking in the Indian Ocean off Tanzania, Zanzibar conjures up dhow boats, flying fish, and pepper plantations. Once busy with spice merchants and slave-traders, Stone Town is the island capital—picture fortress ruins, sultan’s palaces, and miles of palm-fringed coves. Ocean coral gardens attract divers and snorkelers; July’s Festival of the Dhow Countries is East Africa’s largest cultural event. On a private beach, and promising beds strewn with jasmine, Mtoni Marine Hotel has doubles for $90. http://www.zanzibarislandhotels.com/mtoni-marine.html
Palmy Romance: Vanuatu
Sun-bleached strands, aquamarine seas, shipwreck dives. The 83 islands of Vanuatu marry South Pacific paradise with tribal cultures and cannibal memories. Efate Island’s Port Vila is the main town; Espiritu Santo claims pink-sand Champagne Beach; Tanna and Ambrym have volcanoes. Pentecost Island is famed for land-diving ceremonies, where men leap from tall sapling-built towers with forest vines tied around their ankles. Through http://www.nomadsworld.com, private air-conditioned bungalows for two at Espiritu Santo’s Beachfront Resort are $105 nightly.
Fairy Chimneys: Cappadocia, Turkey
The land of the ancient Hittites, Turkey’s Cappadocia region is a magical realm of caves, volcanic valleys, and peculiar rock formations called “fairy chimneys.” Early Christians used its many caves as churches and monasteries — you can still see the frescoes. Complete underground cities include Kaymakli, whose seven subterranean levels are linked by a labyrinth of tunnels. In Akkoy, the Village House Cave Hotel looks an offbeat treat. Doubles, including breakfast, $90. http://www.villagecavehouse.com/
Woven Rainbows: Guatemala
I’m drawn by the colonial charms of Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and markets promising sensory overload. Home of the Maya, Guatemala is renowned for colorful textiles and weaving villages. I don’t generally watch shooting stars from a hot tub, but thatched-roof Villa Sumaya on Lake Atitlan’s shore seems a heavenly spot to do it. Doubles for $65. http://www.villasumaya.com
Indulge your Inner Prole: Liverpool, England
Get some serious street cred. Liverpool is no glamour destination — I once lived here for three months — but it is Europe’s 2008 Capital of Culture. (See http://www.liverpool08.com) Birthplace of the Beatles, soccer fanatics and working-class heroes, this gritty port on the Mersey celebrates with a packed year-long program of festivals, street art, and carnivals. July brings maritime spectacular with the start of the Tall Ships Race. http://www.liverpoolguesthouses.com has B&B doubles from $88.
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